This post is part of my series on the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today is partnering with GCN to present GCN’s 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat. Complete information on the conference can be found here. My introduction to the conference and the weconnect Women’s Retreat can be found here.
Yesterday I introduced you to Reverend Audrey Connor, the featured presenter for the 2014 GCN weconnect Women’s Retreat. Audrey and I corresponded via email early in December. She graciously provided thoughtful answers to my questions. This is the first of three posts. My question is in bold, Audrey’s answer is in regular type.
It seems clear that you have made a decision to surrender your life to following God’s calling even when it didn’t always seem like the logical or the safe choice. Are you aware of any fear in surrendering to your calling? If you are, can you say a few words about what compelled you to surrender and how you moved through any fear you felt in doing it?
For me, the decisions to go to divinity school, be ordained, and serve God through congregational ministry were not made when I felt a lot of fear. Quite the opposite. While I think I probably should have been more afraid to go into ministry as a lesbian and a young woman, the truth is that my call came more from a liberated YES to God and ministry than anything else. For me, when you feel that YES so strongly, the fears drop away.
I did have some fears. I was not sure everyone in my family would accept me as a minister. I thought I was too young, and I hardly believed I had the gifts to pull it all off. I never thought I could preach! But, in some other ways, the decision to go to divinity school felt easy because I was sure it was what God wanted. Once I made the choice to go, over and over again I felt assurances that it was right.
Divinity school gave me language to think about things I had always thought about and a worldwide community to join in the dialogue. I felt that God helped me all through those three and a half years, in every decision I made, in every exciting form of ministry I participated in.
I had a fantastic support group. I had amazing opportunities inside and outside the country. I learned a lot, had wonderful professors, and I knew it was where God loved me being.
It was at this time in my life that I also had the courage to come out to myself as lesbian. I heard the importance of that part of my call – to be an “out” Christian. But it took time. When I was taking the steps to be ordained into Christian ministry, I did not know exactly what it was that God was calling me to do. I was nervous about being gay and a minister, but I had no first-hand experience. Perhaps if I did, I would have felt more fear. But I felt sure that God was calling and I had no real knowledge of the roadblocks ahead.
In some ways, I do not think I was especially afraid because I did not know what to be afraid of.
Now I look back, after being ordained and having served a church, and I think I had plenty to fear. I had a denomination that often does not stand by its lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, trans, and queer members and clergy. I had the difficulty of finding a job as an out lesbian minister.
It took me a while to think of things this way. I did not think about job security when I was in my mid-twenties and making the decision to attend divinity school. I did not think about the fact that most congregations had difficulty with LGBTQI members or ministers.
The church did not talk about sexuality or sexual identity, and that was fine with me because I did not want to talk about it either.
I believe there are always possibilities through God when you are paying attention. After all, God is always creating anew.
I think my biggest mistake was that, somewhere along the line, I began to trust that the church was ready for gay clergy. I confused “trusting God” with “trusting God has a plan through the church” for me and my ministry. I still believe God will make a way for me to do ministry, just not necessarily through the church.
I now have a mortgage. I have a wife. I have commitments that I know God cares about and the church does not. That will sound harsh to many of my good friends and colleagues who are wonderful and “out” supporters of LGBTQI people. But what I have come to understand is that if I continue to try to fight for a way to serve the church, my commitments to my family will suffer, because those two things often stand in opposition to each other. I do not believe that this is what God wants. I believe God led me to my wife. And I believe God desires for she and I to live abundantly.
What my supportive straight colleagues often do not understand is that for me to try to live into a call of congregational ministry would mean spending years and years in “search and call,” waiting for a congregation that is liberal enough to consider a lesbian minister that also needs my particular gifts as a minister. Churches like this do exist in the denomination, but they are few and far between.
A couple of years ago, I was in conversation with a regional minister at just such a church. It was in a great city and not too far away from my family. I told him my name and where I worked. He did not know me personally, and he said only this: “Do you have experience with your own church?” I tried to explain how much experience I did have without the titles, but he stopped me. “This church is only looking at people who have been senior ministers.” The next question is obvious – how will I ever get the experience to get the job?
This is not a new story. It is the same old story for women, for people of color, and now for LGBTQI clergy.
Truly there will always be places to serve God. I am not worried about that. However, trying to serve God with a career in ministry is an uphill battle.
I don’t want to say that I am afraid of what I would have to give up. I think it is more that I am afraid of who I would become. I worry I would end up bitter, with tenuous relationships with my family and, perhaps, even with my church.
The reality is that to sustain this drive/desire/call to congregational ministry, I would have to uproot my family and move to a new community, because the open calls are hardly ever when and where you want them to be.
There are currently three open and affirming Disciples churches in Virginia, four in Ohio, five in Kentucky, and one in Tennessee – and currently I think only one is hiring. This is thirteen churches out of approximately 639 churches (68 inTennessee, 153 in Virginia, 178 in Ohio, and 240 in Kentucky).
There have been a few other churches along the way that were willing to take a chance on me, but the “yes” to the call was not strong enough for me to move thousands of miles from my family and friends. As I said, this is not unusual for many pastors – especially women pastors. But for me, as the reality of this injustice sinks in, the “YES” to serve God in congregational ministry gets less and less enthusiastic.
So how have I surrendered myself despite the fear?
I surrender by knowing that my God never shuts doors. I surrender by getting to know the scriptures.
Paul said in Ephesians that Jesus broke the dividing walls between us and hostility. I choose to believe Paul. I choose to live on this side of Jesus’ coming. I choose to believe that the dividing walls are down. They are just not down in the churches. They are just not down in our society, where we continue to divide ourselves: white from black, rich from poor, gay from straight, trans from cisgender, American from Iraqi.
I cannot overstate how thankful I am for those who take up their personal chisels to chip away at the walls— for me and those walking with me. That is how these walls will come down. I have chiseled some, and I am not giving up, but for right now, I feel a call to live as if the walls are already down.
We live in a world with walls erected. But I choose to live on this side, the side where the walls have been torn down.
As I live into my mid-thirties, I realize I am not called to break down those walls that humans have erected, at least not in the ways I thought I once was.
I am thankful for those who answer the call to make congregations more inclusive of LGBTQI members. But God calls me to live in the YES, where they are already broken down.
I love chaplaincy because the walls are down. I get to minister to people human to human. It does not matter what faith, what age, what race, or what gender the person is. I get to remind people, and be reminded myself, of God’s loving presence every day.
I am excited to help start a PFLAG group in Lynchburg with others for whom the walls are already down, supporting all people who need it.
I continue to find ways to serve the church as I try to be faithful in my love of God and God’s church. I am thankful for the people who are called to ministry inside the church. But most churches are not ready for me to respond to a call as their minister. For that, I am sad. But I will not again mistake those human responses for God’s response to me. And I will not again mistakenly think it is my job to change those hearts. That, I will leave to God and Her church. I will be ready when She is ready for me to serve as a pastor. Perhaps it will be when I am old. Or maybe it will be when I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It is all in God’s time for now.
As I think about the Psalmist’s love of God-fearers, I wonder if this experience of trying to serve a church as an “out” gay woman is a way to help me learn to fear God more. I suspect God will continue to call me into difficult situations. Perhaps as I get older I will enter those situations with boldness, knowing that God protects me, and also with fear, knowing what it is that God is calling me to do.
This God business is not easy.
I know that God desires for me to use my voice as much as possible. And that scares me all the time. But perhaps fear is healthy.
Perhaps that is when you know you are following God – when you are entering into the fire. As my therapist says, the trick is not to get ahead of the spirit. The trick is to stay in the fire long enough that God has purified me but not so long that I am burned up.
Related Content on Where She Is:
And There Was Singing (Sunday)
Rachel Held Evans’ Presentation Summary (Saturday)
We are Broken (Friday)
There Will be Some Tears (Thursday)
weconnect – Introduction to GCN Board Chairperson Susan Shopland
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 2
weconnect – Introduction to Featured Speaker Reverend Audrey Connor
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 3
Introduction to the Gay Christian Network’s weconnect Women’s Retreat